By Hazrina Zainul Azizdin
It is very heartening to observe that the majority of Malaysians are outraged by the recent marriage of a 41-year-old man to an 11-year-old child in Kelantan.
However, it is unfortunate that there are still dissenting voices within our community coming to the defence of the man; using everything from religion (Prophet Muhammad himself took Aisha as a bride when she was nine), to let’s mind our own business (it is a private matter between the man, the child and her family), to even nostalgia (our grandparents married at around that age too and it worked out fine), to justify their view points.
Of all the points raised to normalise this act, the third one struck a chord with me the most. To those saying that their grandmothers married young and were fine, I ask you this, how many of you were old enough or mature enough to say with absolute certainty that you were privy to your grandma’s mental and emotional health? I know I wasn’t.
It took years of observations, reflections and piecing together information about her experiences for me to even began to understand her life and the challenges she went through.
This is her story.
My grandmother was a beautiful young girl from Penang of Arab-Malay descent. She was married at 14 years old and proceed to bear 15 children over the next 43 years of her life. She went from being a pampered, only child from a wealthy family to someone who had to navigate the intricacies of running a household, learning and mastering domestic chores and taking care of a husband twice her age.
She never received full formal education, even though we were often told stories of how smart she was and what excellent memory she possessed. She was even a self-taught expert of many doas and Quranic verses which she graciously shared with her friends and neighbours.
Yet the sad reality was, she never got to live her childhood and pubescent years. Instead, she was thrusted into “wifehood” and motherhood before she was ready. Sure, it was the norms of the time and everybody else did the same. No one thought this could be a problem.
Unfortunately, that life took a toll on her. Bearing that many kids with no check-in on postpartum depression or any kind of mental and emotional health support, resulted in my grandmother depicting psychological issues as early as her 40s. It didn’t help that she also had to endure the stresses of managing a chaotic household of 15 kids on a super tight budget by herself. My grandfather was the sole income earner who was away 90% of the time, working to make ends meet.
She was never properly diagnosed, but in modern times, experts would possibly describe her symptoms as schizophrenia with bouts of bipolar. These tendencies were amplified when she became senile and continued till she died at age 88.
As children witnessing these behaviours, we eventually became desensitised to her violent outbursts, to the whispered conversations that she seemed to be carrying on only with herself, to her paranoia that everyone was out to get her, to her recognising us one minute and treating us like complete strangers trespassing into her house the next. We normalised these incidences as “Tok being tok”.
Yet, in her moments of lucidity, my grandmother was a wonderful woman with a big heart. She had the prettiest smile that could light up any room. She was an amazing cook and mealtimes at her house were always a feast. She was always the first to help anyone in need even when she herself did not have very much. For us, this was also “Tok being tok”, and what we remember and love about her to this day.
Nevertheless, the mental health issues became a central point of her late years. While my mum, aunts and uncles were patient and did the best they could in handling her quirks, nobody really knew how to really help her. Nobody really understood why she became what she did.
It was only recently that I had an enlightening conversation with one of my elder aunts where on reflection, she regretted that neither she nor her siblings could give my grandmother the right kind of help and support that she needed.
She also noted how it must have been an extremely lonely experience for my grandmother to not be able to understand, let alone articulate what she was going through, given the lack of awareness about mental health and zero support of any kind back in the day.
To my grandparents’ credit however, they did right by their kids, broke the vicious cycle and moved with the times. All 15 kids finished at least Form 5 education. None of the girls were married off in their teens. In fact, most went on to marry their partner of choice when they were adults in their 20s. Come my generation, our parents did one better and most of us have tertiary qualifications, good careers and could choose to live our lives in any way we want.
There must be a reason why society eventually decided that young people should not be married off at a young age and that they should be allowed to finish school.
The previous generations already recognised that the old entrenched societal norms did not work, and they evolved; they enacted laws and developed policies that demonstrated this. Yet, it is so sad that some of us have started devaluing the strides that we have made and the opportunities that we now have. Instead, we choose to regress by wanting to replicate “the good old days” which ironically, none of us lived through.
Coming back to the issue at hand today, I plead to all Malaysians, let’s not normalise the behaviour of a middle-aged man marrying a child in today’s landscape. Let us empower those who are left behind, those who thought such decisions are their only option; to move forward with us, by creating greater awareness, education and economic opportunities for them. Let there be no more irrational dissenting voices supporting such acts and let us stand together as one.
Al-Fatihah Tok. I pray that the inner peace and quiet that have eluded you in this world, are finally with you in the hereafter.
Hazrina Zainul Azizdin is an FMT reader.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.